Thursday, November 25, 2010

[pima.nius] Why the West Is Losing the Pacific to China, the Arab League, and Just About Everyone Else

10:48 AM |

Why the West Is Losing the Pacific to China, the Arab League, and Just About Everyone Else

By Cleo Paskel

Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga. The small South Pacific country of the Kingdom of Tonga has been busy. In a two-week period around the start of September, separate military delegations from the US, New Zealand, Australia, UK, India and the UN stopped by for a visit. The French sent a frigate and a military aircraft. China sent two warships.

Why all this activity in a country of 100,000? There is real concern that the West may be losing critical influence in the Pacific, while others such as China, and even the Arab League, are dramatically extending their reach. The implications are global, and may already have affected UN Security Council voting. It wasn't always this way. The Pacific is the West's to lose.

Recent history of geopolitics in the Pacific -- Western Heydays

From a security perspective, since WWII, the nations of the Pacific have been considered part of the West (and in particular the American) security zone. However, especially since the end of the Cold War, the larger Western powers, including the US and UK, started to lose interest in the region. There was a sense that the West had 'won' and so strategic concerns could take a back seat to commercial ones.

That meant standing down what were considered primarily security or power projection-related postings. For example, around five years ago, the UK shut three high commissions (embassies) in the Pacific, including the one in Tonga. From a Western security perspective, the day-to-day management of the region was essentially handed over to Australia and New Zealand (A/NZ).

Unfortunately, while there is no questioning the deep bonds between A/NZ and the nations of the Pacific, some of the A/NZ policies in the region seem to have an old-style colonial bent. Countries like the Kingdom of Tonga, for example, are often seen by A/NZ largely as places to export excess or subpar products, and from where to import cheap seasonal labor (for example, Tongan seasonal workers pick New Zealand's kiwi crop).

Nor have Australia and New Zealand been consistently helpful with international trade agreements.

In 2005, for example, when Tonga signed on to the WTO, Oxfam's Phil Bloomer said: "The terms of Tonga's accession package are appalling", worse than any other than Armenia. According to Oxfam, Tonga was allowed to impose tariffs of no more than 20% on any product. By comparison, the US can apply a 350% tariff on beef imports, and the EU can apply an equivalent tariff of over 300% on sugar imports. Oxfam NZ Executive Director, Barry Coates said: "To our shame, New Zealand, as a member of the working party that negotiated Tonga's accession, has participated in this process."

In short, until recently, Australia and New Zealand have largely been practicing classic old school sphere-of-influence economic and political policies in the Pacific, while larger Western allies, such as the US and UK focused on other matters.

Geopolitics as it is -- Looking for new friends

The problem is these sphere-of-influence policies are a based on a Cold War-era model, in which the traditional allies are the only game in town and so can decide policy in a relative geopolitical vacuum.

Those days are long gone. In an increasingly multipolar world, all sorts of new foreign policy options are available, especially as the enormous value of the island nations of the Pacific becomes increasingly clear.

From a geopolitical perspective, the nations of the Pacific offer (among other things):

  • Sea-lanes and ports in relatively calm waters (increasingly important as China, in particular, increases trade with South America);
  • Access to fisheries (something increasingly important as the Atlantic is fished out);
  • Agricultural exports (especially important as concerns over food security increase in countries such as China);
  • Unknown but potentially valuable underwater resources;
  • Geostrategic military basing sites;
  • Crucial votes in international fora (Pacific Island countries represent around a dozen votes in the UN - a substantial voting block).

Given what is at stake, other nations are understandably keen to take advantage of discontent with traditional partners in order to advance their own position in the Pacific. 

Visit for rest of story

pacific islands media association
aotearoa, new zealand
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